18.06.18, Bradley, et al., eds., William Marshal and Ireland

Main Article Content

Doug Kierdorf

The Medieval Review 18.06.18

Bradley, John, Cóilin Ó Drisceoil and Michael Potterton, eds. William Marshal and Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016. pp. 352.. ISBN: 978-1-84682-218-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Doug Kierdorf
Bentley University

This is an excellent and erudite collection of essays centered around William Marshal's career in Ireland. William Marshal came into the lordship of Leinster when he married Isabel, the daughter of William Fitz Gilbert de Clare, a.k.a. Strongbow, the Anglo-Norman lord who first penetrated Ireland in the late twelfth century. Marshal spent a good part of the rest of his life securing his holdings in Ireland and working to turn them into a profitable enterprise. This collection starts with a brief account of Marshal's life and character and then proceeds to closely examine a number of aspects of his lordship of Leinster. Many of the essays herein rely on archaeological evidence. This is inevitable where there is such a paucity of written documentation.

Sadly, two of the authors of this collection, John Bradley of Maynooth University and Billy Colfer of the Christian Brothers' School, Wexford, died before its publication.

William Marshal was the son of a down-at-heel noblemen from Berkshire. Seeking to make his fortune, William trained as a knight and went off to excel on the tournament circuit in Germany, where he caught the eye of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She brought him into the court of England and he soon made himself indispensible, earning renown as a warrior both in France and on crusade. Richard Lionheart rewarded William by giving him the hand of Isabel de Clare, the heiress to the Leinster lordship. They were married in 1189, when she was seventeen and he was around forty-two.

David Crouch holds up Marshal as the model of the ideal knight as described by Arnaut-Guilhem de Marsan in his ensenhamen. William was very brave and skilled in the arts of war, and his steadfastness and loyalty were legendary even in his own time. But the ideal knight also had to show "courtliness." William strove to cultivate this quality even though he was rough around the edges and probably functionally illiterate. Crouch recounts the numerous humiliations that William suffered at the hands of King John and how he bore them with quiet self-control, so exhibiting another of Marsan's qualities of the ideal knight. Marshal was a big man both physically and in his stature as a knight, courtier and lord. After the death of King John he acted as regent for the underage Henry III.

Adrian Empey offers a look at the accretion and planning of the desmesne in the lordship of Leinster. Marshal made the town of Kilkenny the seat of his earldom. He took over the lordship of his wife's inheritance and energetically worked to complete the work of consolidation that his deceased father-in-law, Strongbow, had begun. Empey poses the question: "To what extent were the Leinster desmesnes the product of careful seigneurial planning as distinct from hit-and-miss opportunism or the random outcome of marcher warfare?" (73). He answers his own question by asserting that the archipelago of castles and holdings that Marshal constructed to secure his holdings shows itself to be part of a long-range strategy, what Empey calls "The Marshal Plan." Anyone having a fief from the king, or anyone else, felt the need to quickly assert his right to it because if such assertion were left too long the weight of custom might leave it permanently alienated from him. The initial form that feudal holdings took in Ireland was important because once in place they could become fixed by customary usage.

In 1193 or soon after, Geoffrey Fitz Robert, a vassal of Marshal, founded the priory at Kells in County Kilkenny. It was peopled by monks from Bodmin in Cornwall and was a daughter house of the Augustinian priory at Bodmin. Therefore it was part of the movement by the Anglo-Normans to supplant the native church. Miriam Clyne provides an extensive description of archaeology done on the priory in the 1970s and 80s. 18,000 artefacts have been recovered from the site.

Clyne's article is followed by a short piece by Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler using archaeological evidence to describe the various stages in the building of the Kells Priory from its founding up to ca. 1500.

There is further concentration on architecture in Ben Murtagh's essay on the great circular tower that William Marshal built at Pembroke in Wales. This tower incorporated advances in military architecture that were happening throughout Europe and in both Wales and Ireland. Dublin Castle, started by King John, was a similar stronghold. Marshal would have been familiar with these innovations and he built a matching tower at the entrance to Waterford Harbor. Both of these served as defensive bastions guarding the sea approaches to his possessions and so securing the vital lifeline to Britain, but they also functioned as lighthouses. The tower at Hook Head in Waterford is now the oldest functioning lighthouse in the world. This is a long and immensely thorough look at castle building both in Ireland, Britain and France in the thirteenth century. Murtagh demonstrates a comprehensive command of the archaeological sources and vocabulary.

Tietzsch-Tyler, who specializes in archaeological reconstruction drawing, returns with a detailed look at archaeological evidence regarding Kilkenny Castle as it was in 1395 on the visit to Ireland of Richard II. The castle was started by William Marshal but there is virtually nothing left of the original. The author himself laments, "the difficulty when attempting to visualise the outer defences of Kilkenny Castle lies in their complete absence, both from the ground today and, at least in any obvious way, from the earliest maps and plans of the castle" (193). Kilkenny appears to have been a concentric castle, i.e., it had several defensive rings. This was probably a development over time and the original castle of William Marshal would not have had this feature. The Anglo-Norman invaders put considerable energy and resources into building these fortifications which were effectively invulnerable to attacks by the native Irish who had no experience of siege warfare.

The next piece, "William Marshal's charter to Kilkenny, 1207: background, dating and witnesses," is tinged with sadness for more than one reason. It was begun by John Bradley who, lamentably, died before he could complete it. Ben Murtagh undertook the task of finishing the article. The authors set the stage for the foundation of Kilkenny by Marshal. Even before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans the old Gaelic Ireland was being transformed by the Norse, who founded the first towns in Ireland and opened it to commerce with the outside world. The king who would rule Ireland no longer need seize Tara, but Dublin. The Norse settlement at the mouth of the Liffey was where the money was and still is.

In the patchwork of kingdoms that the Anglo-Normans found when they arrived in 1169, those of Leinster and Osraige were in a state of constant, low-level warfare. The authors recount in detail this infighting and treachery in the early twelfth century. This was part of the conflict, of course, that ultimately lead to Diarmait MacMurchada's enlistment of Strongbow to retrieve his kingdom of Leinster and the consequent subjection of Ireland to Anglo-Norman rule.

After William Marshal inherited Strongbow's holdings in Leinster he founded the new High Town of Kilkenny on the river Nore as the centrepiece of his desmesne. In its charter he granted the denizens a number of privileges and set up guilds, all to encourage economic activity and make the colony pay for itself. Among the privileges was the right of the townsmen to sell their burgages to whomever they wished except religious orders. Also in the charter William calls on his lords to defend his interests and his lady, Isabel, who was to be left behind to run his affairs while he was summoned back to England by King John. There follows a list of those witnessing the charter with brief biographies of each and their connections. In the event these men did rally to the defense of Isabel when, in the cut and thrust of early thirteenth-century Ireland, the wolves attacked Marshal's holdings. This article is capped by a translation of the charter rendered by Bradley.

The next article, by the late Billy Colfer, returns to archaeological evidence to explore William Marshal's settlement strategy in Co. Wexford. Marshal continued the project of his father-in-law, Strongbow, in constructing a long series of earthworks running from northeast to southwest and demarcating his land in Leinster from the Gaelic areas outside. These were bolstered with stone castles, mottes and ring forts. Colfer also looks at the Tower of Hook at the entrance to Waterford harbor as a fortress protecting the shipping avenue. William also founded the port at New Ross, one of the best harbors for shipping in the kingdom, as a rival to the king's port at Waterford.

Also focusing on the foundation of New Ross is Cóilín Ó Drisceoil who looks at its foundational charter in a later redaction made by William's grandson, Roger Bigod, along with archaeological evidence for the founding of the town, the waterfront, religious houses, mills, bridge and ferry. In the thirteenth century New Ross was the greatest wool-exporting port in Ireland and there were Florentine merchants there as early as 1217. Ó Drisceoil follows with a plea for more archaeology and for it to take precedence over development as he fears that valuable evidence is being lost in the scramble.

This collection finishes with a delightful offering from Gillian Kenny about Isabel de Clare, William's bride. Though she was the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife MacMurchada, Isabel was raised at the court of Prince John and she grew up speaking French. Isabel was a formidable woman who, though she was a generation younger than William, was able to protect her husband's holdings from predators during his absence in England. She bore William ten children but none of the males lived to inherit his lordship and so, upon his death, his land had to be divided among his daughters and came under the control of their husbands.

This collection is illuminating and of rigorous academic standard. One feels that the authors have utilized virtually all available evidence and wrung the maximum conclusions from it.

Article Details